To the Promoters go the spoils

Once upon a time, producers would deliver projects and say good-bye. Those who own some of the back-end have a vested interest in the success of a project, but even...
May 1, 1998

Once upon a time, producers would deliver projects and say good-bye. Those who own some of the back-end have a vested interest in the success of a project, but even

producers who don’t own a thing are now stepping into the promotional arena long after the final cut. CARL MROZEK surveys science and natural-history producers on supporting the fanfare…

In the escalating war for eyeballs, victory often goes to those with the deepest pockets – for promotion, that is. It’s no longer enough for National Geographic or pbs to run ads announcing their special-of-the-month; to recruit new viewers, programs not only need a sharp hook, but promotion on multiple fronts. With that in mind, producers of natural-history and science docs have been invited and urged to play a more active role in promoting their own work, especially for broadcast.

Most producers step into the promotional fray not to improve their bottom line, but for personal reasons. So why go the extra mile, often at one’s own expense, without a tangible financial stake in improved ratings? The reasons vary as much as the work.

Tom Mangelson, indie producer/photographer, travelled from his Wyoming home to upper Hudson Bay in Canada via Washington, D.C., rather than taking the more economical direct route to finish his polar bear film last fall. He took the oval route to finalize arrangements for eng coverage of his upcoming shoot. Both Nat Geo and nbc’s Today Show sent crews and producers to shoot stories on Mangelson in action near the Arctic Circle.

Nat Geo will combine this with footage of other filmmakers to show on ngc services and perhaps on Explorer and elsewhere. The Today Show story became the headline feature on Thanksgiving Monday, highlighting the release of Mangelson’s self-published Polar Dance, a coffee-table book, as well as promoting the doc. This feature is still ‘airing’ aboard United Airlines flights worldwide, along with other Today Show ‘best of’ features.

‘The original plan was to market the documentary and the book simultaneously, but the book came out first,’ says Mangelson. ‘But whenever I’m interviewed about the book, I mention the film. When the film premieres next fall, I’ll advertise the book with the broadcast to make the best of promotional opportunities.’

In this vein, Mangelson hypes the forthcoming film at his 13 galleries. He’ll also package a making-of video with the home-video version and cross-promote them with the book at his galleries and other retail outlets. ‘As an independent, you always have to market your last as well as your next project to make it. I’ve used money from gallery sales to finance the film and the book.’

Derek & Beverly Joubert have been producing wildlife specials and books in Botswana and southern Africa for Nat Geo for over a decade. They spend months, even years, on location for any given project. Before plunging into the African bush to begin an assignment, however, they make a point of meeting with the publicists, ‘to see what they have in mind, so we can work out any conflicts,’says Derek. ‘That way we can integrate the promotional needs with our shooting schedule.’

The Jouberts, who produce all their work in support of wildlife conservation, have done scores of interviews, on and off camera, appeared on many talk shows, at film premieres, book signings, press conferences and other events. ‘We film wildlife in the hope of making a difference, so it’s important that as many people as possible see our films. If we make outstanding films, but only a few people see them, then we’ve failed,’ says Derek.

The couple spend a minimum of a few weeks promoting each new special before its North American and European premieres. ‘[Nat Geo] makes all the appointments and gives us our schedule. If we have any questions about any of the appearences, we’ll discuss it, but we agree with over 95% of it,’ says Beverly.

The payback comes in many forms. Beverly recalls a National Public Radio interview with live call-in after finishing Reflections on Elephants. ‘At the end, someone asked us what kind of music we liked, and we said blues. After that, we started getting blues tapes and cds from people we’d never met, who sent us their favorites.’

Dennis Allen, executive producer of Animal Planet’s All Bird TV, the first u.s. tv weekly bird series, worked closely with Discovery’s promo department from the outset. They produced trailers for the pilot, new ones to launch the series, followed by more trailers once the show was into its first season. Allen and his colleagues also distilled audience feedback from pilot screenings and the website to fine-tune the concept before plunging into production.

‘We wanted to be sure our approach was reaching a broad audience before going ahead full tilt. Luckily, the early viewer response reaffirmed our approach,’ he says. The collaboration has paid off in ratings. The result has been a move to Friday primetime in addition to Saturday afternoons, plus a greenlight for a second season.

Allen is applying his Bird TV experience to Digital Duo, a half-hour series reviewing pc hardware and software, for pbs. Marketing the program to pbs affiliates and promoting it has been a major challenge. ‘pbs is decentralized compared with Discovery. I have to convince many individual stations to carry Digital Duo, and I have to develop and distribute trailers and press packets for them. pbs doesn’t have the in-house promotional capability that Discovery has. It’s a full-time job.’

Mark Stouffer plotted his promotions strategy long before shooting a milestone film on Siberian tigers. ‘I routinely get calls from promotion people asking for dramatic behind-the-scenes footage and stills, months after we’ve finished shooting. If I didn’t anticipate it, I wouldn’t have much to give them. But I generally know what they’re looking for and I try to be ready to grab those shots when we’re on location, especially drama, danger, humor, local color… . I’ll shoot it on 16mm film, or on Hi-8 or dv video. I also do all of the still photography and shoot dozens of rolls of slides, mainly for promotion.’

But as every cameraperson will tell you, knowing what to shoot and getting it are two different things. ‘I rarely have a designated photographer or videographer along to shoot for promotion, so we miss a lot of the best shots because we’re all busy trying to get the shot [for the film] or getting out of a jam.’

Even when a crew or still photographer is there for promo shots, challenges abound. ‘Days and weeks can go by when very little exciting happens and then suddenly all hell can break loose. If someone’s only staying for a week or less, they may come up short on good shots.

‘Another problem is that there’s often only one good camera angle, for the main camera. When two or more guys have to share it, tempers can flare and it hurts the production. I’d prefer to have someone along from the start to shoot for promotion so that you have time to get to know each other and to get into sync.’

Peter Schnall has hosted many reporters and eng crews on location as a Nat Geo staff producer for seven years. Now an independent producer and promoter of New York-based Partisan Pictures, Schnall often handles these arrangements himself. ‘Coordinating p.r. while producing and shooting is a challenge. We’re a little big company and don’t have a p.r. person on staff. My partner [John Breger] and I do most of it, but also contract p.r. agents to help us promote our finished films.’

Schnall and Breger still produce docs for Nat Geo and others, and they’re committed to developing recognition for their brand. ‘At National Geographic I learned promotion firsthand and saw the benefits. Now I’m using that experience to establish Partisan Pictures as synonymous with a certain style of high-caliber documentary, like a Ken Burns film. To achieve that we run ads in the trade press and circulate press kits with videos of our new films to the dailies, the trade press and to the tv press.

‘We also want to try new angles as well. This summer we’ll do a radio feature in the middle of the Pacific with [explorer] Bob Ballard while exploring a battleship graveyard at 3,000 feet in a mini-submarine. We also plan to update our Battle of Midway Island website daily.’

Barry Clark takes an active role in promoting specials produced by his company, Mandalay Media Arts. Clark believes there’s more than ratings to be gained by active self-promotion. ‘As independent producers we’re struggling to retain creative control over our programs from concept through broadcast. Many broadcasters and packagers welcome the input of producers when it comes to promotion. Promotion departments are stretched too thin to become familiar with each show they promote. Besides, nobody knows your program as well as you.’

Clark believes that promotion and outreach can be linked effectively. On his current film, Sahara, being shot in Super 35 for pbs, Clark is also feeding field reports to a Sahara website: ‘We’re using excerpts from crew journals, home-movie-style dv video, and digital stills shot on location. It won’t be as interactive as a prior website where online visitors could ‘interact’ with the crew on location.’

Clark concedes that the promotional benefit of the Sahara site would be enhanced by links to major sites like those of Kodak and the Jackson Hole Festival. He also believes that new digital media, such as the Internet, cdrom, and dvd, offer new avenues for cross-platform promotion and content delivery, which could help producers reach new audiences, especially youth. ‘Producers who learn to exploit these new media will have an edge over the competition. Some of these avenues, like the Internet, may develop into significant revenue streams in the future, especially for producers with back-end ownership in programs with evergreen qualities. In the meantime they offer inexpensive avenues for promotion.’

Clark will screen Sahara at museums such as the Smithsonian and at benefits for collaborating institutions prior to broadcast. He’ll also court the media. ‘In the past, we mailed postcards to a few hundred of our colleagues, as nearly everyone does. We’ll have a p.r. firm promote Sahara and distribute a press kit to over 100 publications and tv media before the premiere broadcast.

‘Self-promotion is an essential part of any high-end production, especially if a producer owns points or ancillary rights in the project. The broadcasters cannot be counted on in all cases to provide the kind of push that a program needs to earn high ratings,’ he adds.

With Wild America, one of pbs’ top-rated half-hour series for over a decade, Mark Stouffer and his brother Marty have demonstrated the value of on-air promotion for both ratings and returns. Stouffer subsequently re-edited footage from the series into eight one-hour specials, aggressively promoted and marketed by King World Home Video in direct-response tv ads. They’ve grossed over us$40 million in the u.s. and abroad. ‘I attribute our strong sales to the brand recognition of the series and to effective promotion and marketing by King World, and to our selection and editing of themes with broad appeal,’ he says.

‘Over-the-air promos and paid ads on other channels are still the most effective way of promoting non-fiction programs,’ says Clark. ‘In working with nbc, National Geographic learned that an investment in promotion can translate into tangible ratings gains.’

As a producer, Clark considers strong viewership paramount. ‘A film is not finished, and a producer’s job is not done, until a program is viewed by an audience – not just its first domestic one, but its broader global audience.’

Stouffer concurs: ‘I’m a passionate filmmaker and it’s important to me that people get to see what I’ve produced.’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.